Monday, July 4, 2011

A Frank Review of "Eyes Without a Face" (1960)

The Short Version? I lost mine, so we'll take yours.
What Is It? Moody Horror.
Who Is In It? French people (and an Italian.)
Should I See It? No.

Twice in the 1980s I checked a large hardcover book out of a public library which offered a critical analysis of the hundred or so greatest horror movies up to that point. While I've never made a concerted effort to track down most of the flicks, I have this mental checklist that I've gone through over the years when opportunities to see movies from that list have presented themselves. I can finally mark off "Les Yeux Sans Visage," whose objective worth I can see, but like many of those movies, subjectively was found wanting.

The film opens with a female assistant (Alida Valli) dumping the nude corpse of a disfigured young woman in a river, so you can't accuse it of lallygagging like many old horror movies. The dead girl was the victim of Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur,) a master control freak and plastic surgeon driven to recover the face of his daughter. Christiane Génessier (Edith Scob) has been wasting away in seclusion since her features were mangled in a car accident, for which her father was responsible. To atone, the doctor has taken to grafting the beautiful faces of other, unwilling women over his daughter's. However, the grafts tend not to take, so Christiane spends most of her time wearing an unnerving, featureless mask.

As mentioned previously, the film cuts to the chase, laying out all the grisly details in the first reel. There's no stalling, red herrings, or other irritants common of the time. Unfortunately, there's also nowhere for the movie to go beyond its premise. Instead, the film sort of loiters in the Génessiers' world, depicting Christiane's mental breakdown, her father's frustration, and the machinations of their accomplice in procuring women for the experiments. As a result, the movie has a complete absence of sympathetic characters, instead relying on a host of villains who operate on pure text. Everyone's motivation is clear, so there's no ambiguity as they go through the expected motions. In that sense, it's something of a precursor to American Psycho, disturbing for its time, and not an experience one would rush to repeat. The difference is that Eyes Without A Face is terribly earnest, without the pleasure of satire.

The special effects are well ahead of their time, and I was surprised by the level of graphic detail in the heterograft operation that sees a young woman's face removed. The score can be amusingly off, and the tone of the film is rather bleak. At the same time, there's a clinical flatness to the proceedings, so that the audience is more likely to register disgust than terror. The final act gets into surreal territory, with some memorable imagery that recalls German impressionism, but the emotional blankness mutes its potential effect. I ended my viewing thinking about how potent a remake could be, with more capable artists employing virtually the same materials, just more effectively. In fact, there are any number of places where Eyes' influence can be felt, from '60s mod Wonder Woman comics to Halloween's Michael Myers to Vanilla Sky, all of them better realized than the source. I find it funny this was a scorned film upon release, embraced as a lost classic in modern times. I suspect that once again, critics' assumptions of the "simple" lives of earlier generations and lowered expectations play into retroactively making a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

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